(Blogger’s note: This post is the first in a series of five or so that is part of what I’m tentatively referring to as “Life Change Week.” Basically, I’ve had a lot of difficult stuff come up, the sort of things that pile up Life Change Units on one of those stress tests you’ve probably seen before. As part of dealing with it all, I’m going to be writing about it here. Hopefully, it will be helpful for you as well. And now, to paraphrase Bette Davis, fasten your seatbelts — it’s going to be a bumpy week …)
I mentioned last week that my wife’s latest edition of ESPN: The Magazine (published in New York: The City) arrived, and that it was their annual “athletes-take-over-the-mag” issue. Now, usually this magazine has a feature near the front called “This Just In,” an editorial about something going on in the sports scene, written by one of their top writers. Being that it was the jocks’ issue, though, the slot this time around was filled by a former NBA player named Brian Grant.
I remember Grant from when he first came to the NBA with my hometown (well, home-region) team, the Sacramento Kings. He was a 6’9″, 250-pound power forward with a decent shooting touch, a good rebounder. His basketball career never quite lived up to expectations due to some injuries, he never made an All-Star team and he won’t be going to the Hall of Fame. But he did play twelve years in the Association and made more money than I’ll ever see in my lifetime, so you can’t say he wasn’t a success. But basketball was not the main thing he was writing about in his column — he has a challenge to deal with that’s a bit tougher than going one-on-one with Karl Malone.
Brian Grant has Parkinson’s disease.
In a nutshell, Parkinson’s is a degenerative condition of the central nervous system (including the brain) that causes impaired motor skills and speech, and symptoms include muscle rigidity, tremors, a slowing of physical movement and in extreme cases loss of physical movement. It is both chronic (there’s no cure at present) and progressive (it never gets better, always worse). Michael J. Fox and Muhammad Ali are the most famous people with the disease, and have done a lot to publicize it and spur donations for research into its treatment.
When I was younger, I sang in a church choir with a older man who suffered from it, a professor at University of California at Davis, and watching him struggle with it left an impression on me. I might not have had the scientific background to fully understand it, but seeing Henrik trying to work through his difficuties, I certainly knew it was no picnic. Needless to say, it’s hard for me to get a mental picture of someone as big, healthy and young (only 37) as Brian Grant having to deal with it. But that’s the way it goes sometimes.
In the article (which I can’t link to because it’s only available for ESPN Insider subscribers — sorry), Grant talks about the changes he’s had to make in his diet and lifestyle because of Parkinson’s. Sugar is out, as are yeast and pecans. He mentions that he has to take better care of himself now than he did when he was in the NBA. So far, the only visible evidence of his illness is a periodic tremor in his left hand, which he says only goes away when he’s asleep.
But the biggest surprise in this piece is Grant’s attitude toward the whole experience. He sums it up nicely in the final paragraph:
One good thing has come of my illness: I prayed for a purpose after I stopped playing, and I’ve found it. This is a page turning to a new chapter in my life. The Lord knows there’s a timing issue with us. We ask and He gives — but we’re not always ready to receive. I’m ready now. For 12 seasons I played in the NBA as hard as I could. Now I’ve got a new game to play, a new fight, and I have to put forth the same kind of effort. I can do that. It’s the only way I know how.
That’s right — instead of anything that even remotely smacks of “poor, poor pitiful me,” Brian’s response has been, “Is this my new job, God? Great — let’s get to work!” He’s actually acting as if he’s thankful he’s got Parkinson’s, because it gives him a direction in life now that his NBA career is over.
Except I don’t think he’s acting. I think dude means it.
It makes me question my own attitude about things. Like most people, I have a tendency to face adversity with anger, frustration, rage against the fates and sometimes outright whining. I don’t like to take on any more trouble than I’m currently handling, and preferably far less than that. So when a new pain in the butt comes along, I generally regard it as an unwelcome intrusion into my already-complicated life.
But what if I treated them instead as gifts from God? What if I really acted like I believed it when I say that my life is surrendered to Him, it is His ownership and nothing can come into it except by His divine will? What if, instead of beating my head against seemingly implacable walls of fate, I did what Brian Grant is doing and said “I’ve got a new game to play” — and then went on with the same positive attitude one usually associates with playing a new game, only I get to play it on God’s team? What kind of difference would that make?
Well, for one thing, I would be a lot more pleasant to be around — after all, who would you rather hang out with, someone who’s griping or someone who’s playing a game? Riiiiight. For another, people would see me facing the difficulties with more positivity (is that a word? Well, it is now.) than normal, and might think to themselves, “boy, I wish I had that kind of outlook” — which in turn would allow me to tell them about Jesus in a way they can appreciate. And also, the trials would better serve to draw me closer in relationship to God than to distract me from Him. That’s just off the top of my head; I could probably come up with more advantages.
Ooh, just thought of another one: I would be more inclined to treat such situations as opportunities for personal development. In my yet-to-be-published novel (a sample of which I’ve recently sent to a major publisher — pray for God’s will, whatever that may involve), there’s an interesting interaction near the end between the two main characters, a female noblewoman and one of her male slaves. In it, the slave talks about his life before being captured and sold off, then thanks his mistress for the chance to spread his wings and learn what he was capable of, a chance he would never have had in the little village from which he had been taken. The noblewoman, incredulous, replies, “are you saying that slavery set you free?” Which, in fact, is exactly what he’s saying. Do I always look at things that way? Unfortunately, no … but there’s no reason I can’t.
You’d think I’d have grasped this already, this concept of treating everything that comes as being from the hand of God and acting accordingly. I’ve been a Christian for over twently years, for crying out loud. But looking at my life, it’s clear I’ve fallen into a trap that many believers do — treating my personal tastes as if they we’re God’s too. How often do we face some illness or issue by asking God to get rid of it, or praying for deliverance, or (in the case of Pentecostals, a group that includes me) “binding” the evil spirits supposedly behind the “attack”? Maybe sometimes that’s appropriate … but at other times we’re wasting our breath, because we’re asking God to remove something that He put in our lives in the first place! Better to check with Him first and see what He has in mind before we go off on all that binding, don’t you think? Or as Bob Mumford once said, “if we fix the fix that God has fixed to fix us, He will simply have to fix another fix to fix us.”
The Apostle Paul came to understand this in a deep way. In his second letter to the Corinthians (12:7-10), he talks about “a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan” that was bothering him. (He’s not specific about what it involved; it’s probably none of our business.) He asked God on three separate occasions to get that thing out of his life. But God said no. Furthermore, He told Paul that “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Translation: I’ve put this in your life to keep you humble, so that when people look at you, I’m the One they see. Paul not only accepted that, he added, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Later on, Paul would write about how “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation” (Philippians 4:12). I think this might be that secret: to trust God’s will so fully and unreservedly that we receive everything — EVERYTHING — that happens in life as if it were His special gift to us, for our benefit and His glory. Or as Paul states elsewhere, “we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28).
So, in this self-proclaimed “Life Change Week,” I’m going to try taking a greater initiative in treating all things in my life as blessings from the throne of Heaven — just like Paul did with his “thorn,” just like Brian Grant is doing with his Parkinson’s. All the stuff that I’m facing — unemployment, physical pains, family illness, family discord, marital problems, financial questions, impatience, social strains, and how much the Sacramento Kings stink because they don’t have a young Brian Grant around (though the current power forward, Jason Thompson, shows promise) — all these things, I plan to enjoy them when possible, learn from them when appropriate, and accept them regardless. And who knows what will happen?
If nothing else, it should make all those stressors a lot less … stressful.